The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White | Book Review

4 December 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Book review

SUMMARY: A timeless classic of nature writing that has been enhanced by the skillful editing of Cambridge University research scholar, Anne Secord.

Any book that delighted both Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin is a must-read, in my opinion, and Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne [Oxford University Press, 2013; Amazon UK; Amazon US/kindle US] is that book. But this classic of nature writing -- amongst the first published in this genre -- has been beloved by millions for more than two centuries, being republished more than 300 times since it first perched on a bookshelf.

This book is a compilation of letters that naturalist and ornithologist Gilbert White (1720-93) presumably wrote and posted to his contemporaries; naturalist and antiquarian, Thomas Pennant (44), and Daines Barrington (66), an English barrister and Fellow of the Royal Society. But it's obvious that at least some of these "letters" (i. e.; Letter 1 to Thomas Pennant, Esquire) were actually written specifically for this book, to provide a context and framework around which the entire collection revolves.

Along this same vein, this edition of White's classic includes additional context. Thanks to the knowledge of editor Anne Secord, an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge, we learn a little about the relationship between the author and his correspondents, the times in which he lived, and the historic use of the epistolary form in literature.

But you don't have to be a scholar to appreciate this book. The writing itself and the thoughtfulness that it stimulates has inspired admiration in uncounted numbers of readers throughout the centuries. Sprinkled throughout the letters are deliciously evocative nuggets and observations, such as this, which is one of my particular favourites:

The language of birds is very ancient, and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical; little is said, but much is meant and understood.

~ Gilbert White. Excerpted from Letters to the Hon. Daines Barrington, Letter 43, p. 191.

In addition to being a skilled writer, White was an astute observer, often writing about details that most people rarely bother to see (even today). For example, he penned this enlightening letter about the peacock's tail:

Happening to make a visit to my neighbour's peacocks, I could not help observing that the trains of those magnificent birds appear by no means to be their tails; those long feathers growing not from their uropygium, but all up their backs. A range of short brown stiff feathers, almost six inches long, fixed in the uropygium, is the real tail, and serves as a fulcrum to prop the train, which is long and top-heavy, when set on end. When the train is up, nothing appears of the bird before but its head and neck; but this would not be the case were those long feathers fixed only in the rump, as may be seen by the turkey-cock when in a strutting attitude. By a strong muscular vibration these birds can make the shafts of their long feathers clatter like the swords of a sword-dancer, they then trample very quickly with their feet, and run backwards towards the females.

~ Gilbert White. Excerpted from Letters to Thomas Pennant, Esquire, Letter 35, page 76.

The illustrations are black and white engravings that were first published in Thomas Pennant's book, British Zoology. These engravings are sometimes left out of republished editions despite the fact that White commented on at least a few of them in some of his letters.

This 316 page hardcover includes two appendices, 28 pages of explanatory notes, a helpful 10-page biographical index, and a 6-page topics index. Besides this collection of letters, my other favourite section was Appendix II, which (re)publishes readers' responses from throughout the ages, including several amusing poems.

Bibliophiles in particular will love this little book because it is beautifully produced: when opened, this hardcover lies neatly in one's hand, the paper is silky-smooth between one's fingers and there is a ribbon attached to the book's spine for marking one's place. Just holding this book in my hands makes me think of long winter evenings spent reading in front of a fire crackling in the hearth.

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Anne Secord is an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She studies the history of nineteenth-century popular science, science education, and working-class engagement with science; also horticulture, medicine, and consumption in the eighteenth century.

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Disclaimer: GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's editor or author (like, duh: he's been dead for more than two centuries!). Outside of receiving a free copy of this book, no compensation was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, which was written by GrrlScientist and published by the Guardian.

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Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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